The recommendation letter has been a staple of the college application process as long as that process has been in existence. The letter is intended to give admissions officers a way to learn more about your student and what qualities they bring to the table.
Much like the application essay, it goes beyond grades and SAT scores and tells more about your student as a person. Colleges usually ask for two or three letters. But are letters of recommendation a fair tool for assessing a student? Some would say no.
A Washington Post article suggests that they are an unfair part of the process, giving already-privileged students the upper hand. In a sense, the letter as much about the student as it is about the skill of the teacher who writes it. The article suggests that the process itself leaves room for misunderstanding, especially when it comes to differences in language across the country. It cites a theoretical case of a student in Iowa, a teacher writing a recommendation later may use the phrase “He is never afraid to ask a question when he doesn’t understand a concept,” to mean that the student is brilliant but has humility. Admissions officers may not understand what the recommender intended, which can lead to misinterpretation of the students strengths and weaknesses.
Though the recommendation process has its flaws, it’s an inevitable process of applying to most colleges and universities in the United States. Therefore, it’s important to make the most of the process and have your child put their best foot forward. (Learn more important life skills for college and beyond with #MyCollegeCorner podcast – “How to Empower high school and college students for success.“)
Decide who to ask:
Most colleges ask for two to three recommendation letters, generally from two teachers and a school counselor. For some students, the question of who to ask may be obvious. For others, decisions will have to be made. If there is a teacher who knows your child well and who can speak to their accomplishments, that’s a good choice.
Your child’s first inclination is probably to choose classes where they did well, but have them also consider classes where they had some trouble. If a teacher can speak to their struggles in a class while showing how they worked hard to overcome those issues, it can paint a picture of them as a student. It also can provide an explanation for a less than stellar grade on their transcript, assuming that they did work hard in the class. Maybe they got a C in a class that isn’t their strong suit, but they went to tutoring each week and took every opportunity to learn more. That teacher would have a lot to say about them and their desire to learn and do well, even in the face of challenge.
Your child’s recommender – a teacher, a coach, an advisor, whoever it may be – has many demands on their time. It’s likely they’ll be asked to write letters for others as well, so make sure you give them plenty of time to write your student’s letter. Your child should ask at least six weeks before the deadline, but the earlier they ask, the better. Respect your recommender’s time.
Make it easy for them:
Have your student put together a recommendation package to send to their recommenders once they’ve said yes. They might include things like a resume, a letter highlighting important accomplishments, details about why they are applying to the school, and any anecdotes they think are important for the recommender to know. In short, your student should make it easy for your recommender, giving them the right amount of time and information to write the best possible letter.
Check in again:
Three weeks before the due date, your child should check in with their recommenders, sending a brief reminder of the deadline. This is a good time to ask if they have all the information they need.
Send a thank you note:
It’s crucial that your child thank their recommenders for their time by sending them a note of appreciation for writing the recommendation. Teachers and counselors write recommendations for many students, which takes up a great deal of time. Your student should be sure to let the recommender know how grateful they are for the work that was done to provide this important piece of the college admissions process.